Sermon for Sunday, December 20, 2020 || Advent 4B || Luke 1:26-38
Last year, my children got really into singing Christmas carols. We had the Pentatonix Christmas albums on repeat pretty much all of Advent. The Pentatonix are a high energy a cappella group, and their version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” opens one of their albums. It’s a really catchy track and it gets stuck in your head. It got stuck in my then five-year-old son’s head a lot. And he would walk around the house singing it. But he didn’t have all the words just right. He sang the first few lines correctly; you know, “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn king.’” But then he would sing, “Peace on earth and mercy wild.”
Oh man. The first time I heard his version, it knocked my socks off. Mercy wild! There’s no such thing as mild mercy. “Peace on earth and mercy mild?” No. All mercy is wild — uncontained, uncontainable, always spreading out to touch more and more lives. The mercy of God allows us chance after chance to enter into or return to a life-giving relationship with God. Mercy is getting a second chance and a third and fourth until the chances are unlimited (and that’s called grace).
Mercy wild, not mercy mild. My son’s mistaken lyrics are so much more accurate to the God who loves us so extravagantly as to send us God’s son, so that we, too, could learn what it means to be children of God. Only a God of hair-brained schemes and crazy notions could have thought that one up – an untamed God, not domesticated by our staid expectations, but wild like the wind of the Holy Spirit.
The idea of “mercy wild” got me looking for other instances of the word “mild” in Christmas carols. And nearly every other time this bland word crops up, you know who the carol is talking about? Mary. The Mother Mild, like the songs are describing salsa or Clark Kent.
When this old world drew on toward night,
you came; but not in splendor bright,
not as a monarch, but the child
of Mary, blameless mother mild.
That’s “Creator of the Stars of Night.”
Where children pure and happy
pray to the blessèd Child,
where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the mother mild…
That’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
No less than five hymns in our hymnal describe Mary as “mild.” And as far as I can tell, the only reason is because it rhymes with “child.” My guess is that the hymn writers are using “mild” to mean “gentle” and “tender.” And I can buy that. I can imagine Mary holding the newborn Jesus tenderly as she ponders all that has happened and treasures everything in her heart.
But what if we make the same mistake my son made with “Hark! The Herald?” What if we replaced “mild” with “wild?” Not as a monarch, but the child of Mary, blameless mother wild. I think we would find a much truer, and much deeper, picture of Mary, one that is not airbrushed for the idyllic cover of the Christmas card.
Because Mary’s story is wild. There is nothing bland or staid about her in Luke’s account of the Gospel, at least, not when you strip it down to what the Gospel actually says and remove the residue of so many Christmas pageants and carols and cards that have saddled Mary with the “mild” moniker. I want you to picture in your minds the scene we read this morning, the conversation between Gabriel and Mary, what we call the Annunciation.
Got it in your mind? Good. Is Mary sweeping? I bet she’s sweeping.
The thing is, the story as written doesn’t give us any detail. But millennia of Christian culture has built up a particular expectation of Mary. We see a young woman, probably a teenager, hanging out at home doing housework – something like Rapunzel in the Disney movie Tangled, who sings, “When will my life begin?”
When I was in Nazareth last year, our group visited two sites where the Church remembers the Annunciation happening. One is an excavated house, which is now beneath the big Roman Catholic church. The other, however, is by a spring a few blocks away (also now within a Greek Orthodox church). Now when I imagine this story, I see Mary outside early in the morning with the wind tossing her hair. She looks out at the hills while her water jugs fill. (Now she’s not Rapunzel – she’s Merida from the Disney/Pixar movie Brave – but that’s neither here nor there.) Gabriel comes to her with the startling message, not apparating before her like a wizard in Harry Potter, but walking up the path to the spring.
“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you,” the angel begins (technically the messenger). Mary is confused by the greeting, perhaps because a stranger is talking to her (and Nazareth isn’t very big so she probably knew everyone). Or because Gabriel singles her out as one who is favored. It’s probably that one because the angel repeats it: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Remove our well-worn familiarity with this story and you start to see how wild it is. A stranger comes up to Mary while she’s filling the water jugs at the town spring. So far the story is reminiscent to Isaac’s servant coming up to Rebekah at the well or Jacob doing the same to Rachel. When Bible stories take place at wells, we know that some sort of coupling will result. But Mary’s already engaged. Luke makes sure to tell us that right away. So something subversive is going on, something that’s pushing boundaries, something wild.
It turns out the boundary being pushed is the one that humans artificially set up between us and God. Gabriel continues, telling Mary about the plan to send God’s child to earth to break down any and all barriers between us and God. The plan is so wild it just might work. But only if Mary agrees.
And this is the best and wildest part of the story yet. After hearing the whole plan from Gabriel and understanding that the pregnancy will happen because of the Holy Spirit’s power, and confirming that Gabriel isn’t just some weirdo because he knows about her cousin Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, Mary takes a breath. And she says “Yes” to God. “I am here,” she says, echoing Isaiah and the prophets of old. While the angel told her the plan, she still doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen, what Joseph will think or her family or the people of Nazareth. She knows the dangers of pregnancy, the risk of dying in childbirth. She knows her child will grow in a land oppressed by the Roman Empire. She knows this will be hard.
And still she says, “Yes.” This is bravery. This is courage. This is faith. There’s nothing mild about Mary at all. And yet, I don’t want us to fall into the Bible Hero Syndrome I talked about last week. Mary’s “Yes” is brave and wild, and she says it from a place of deep humility and trust, not from a place of superhuman power. Mary’s “Yes” to God’s wild plan in her life gives us the most beautiful example of how we, too, can say “Yes” to God, even when – especially when – the path before us is unclear.
Because Mary’s “Yes” is fueled by God’s promise to be with her, to literally be growing within her as the infant Jesus. Likewise, our “Yeses” to God are about partnering with God, not about getting a job from God and then going off alone to do it. Whenever we say “Yes” to God, we are risking a wild ride, but we are never risking abandonment. For our “Yes” to God always comes – only ever comes – after God says “Yes” to us.
Mercy wild indeed.